This article first appeared in UCLA Magazine.
When government, the media and the public try to make sense of drug policy in America, the expert they turn to is Mark Kleiman, public policy professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. A renowned researcher, blogger, author and public-policy consultant, Kleiman has worked for congressmen, the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Boston. Now the state of Washington has tapped Kleiman to head its marijuana legalization effort.
Drugs are to public policy what yo-yos are to toys. We regulate them, legalize them, criminalize them, love them, hate them and, of course, wage war on them. Perhaps nowhere is this ambivalence more apparent than in our attitude toward marijuana. It's illegal on the federal level but legal in Washington and Colorado, and either legal for medicinal use, decriminalized or both in 24 other states. Kleiman became the go-to voice on this complex and controversial topic almost by accident.
How did you choose this as an area of academic inquiry?
Completely non-straightforward answer. Phil Heymann taught me politics and public management at [the Harvard Kennedy School, where Kleiman earned his Ph.D.], and he got to be the head of the criminal division of the U.S. Justice Department. I was offered a job under a guy who graduated a couple years ahead of me, Steve Hitchner, to run the newly formed Office for Policy and Management Analysis.
When I got there, the folks who were doing public corruption cases didn't need advice from a non-lawyer. But the head of the narcotics section had a couple of questions and called my boss. My boss called me. This was 1979, the absolute trough of interest in drugs as a policy issue. Steve called me and said, "Look, nobody cares about drugs. But we're brand-new here; the first time there have been non-lawyer professionals in the criminal justice division. We have to establish ourselves as valuable. I don't care what this guy's question is, make him happy."
I felt I could use my policy methods. I didn't know anything about drugs. So I figured out an answer that he thought was the right answer, and he asked me another question and by now I'm attending their weekly staff meetings.
Then the head of the DEA comes to the attorney general and says the Iranian revolution and invasion of Afghanistan by the Russians have collapsed the price of opium and we're going to have a heroin epidemic in the U.S. He shredded the DEA guy who did the report and handed it to Phil Heymann and said, "I want something better than this." Phil gave it to me and I spent the next six weeks teaching myself drug policy. So now I really was the drug guy.
You approach the subject differently than most experts.
People who get academically interested in either drug abuse or crime control have a personal story. Their brother died of a heroin overdose, or they got arrested for pot. They have a passionate interest either in making the law tighter or looser. For me, it's just a topic I happen to work on. I think it's an infinitely fascinating topic, but I don't have a specific agenda.
They had grass, we have weed.
This is not your grandfather's marijuana. I made fun of that for a long time — well, there's more THC in it, so people smoke less. [THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive ingredient in pot.] That turns out to have been too glib. Yeah, you smoke less, but it gets to the brain faster if you take one hit instead of six. Older people always complain about this heavy pot. But I talk to young people who have the same complaint. They say, "Are you kidding? It knocks me on my ass."
And yet there is still a surge toward acceptance. You've said that may be because we're more familiar with pot now. Is that what's going on here?
That, and cultural blueness (i.e., "blue state cultural outlook") is spreading. Distrust of government probably has a role. And also — I find this incredibly ironic — the medical marijuana movement snuck in full legalization under the guise of helping cancer patients.
I would have thought voters would have reacted to that by saying, "Screw you and the horse you rode in on." In fact, they seem to have said, "Oh, I guess the sky didn't fall. Why don't we just legalize pot?"
There's another thing going on, similar to gay marriage: the positive-feedback effect. As people came out of the closet, more and more people discovered that they had gay friends. Some of the same things happened to cannabis. People know now they know people who smoke. It's out of the closet.
The problem is people either believe cannabis is harmful or it's not harmful. It's hard to persuade people that it's harmful to some people some of the time. It's probably harmful to more people more of the time now than it was 30 years ago, partly because it's a different product and partly because people are starting younger. That scares me more than the change in composition. First use now is age 15 or 16. That can't be good.
And now people are smoking and drinking, whereas in the '60s it was one or the other.
A big question is whether legalizing cannabis will increase or decrease heavy drinking. We don't have an answer to that question.
Are you in favor of legalization?
I come down for grow-your-own plus co-ops, not a commercial system. But that's sort of a dodge because we're clearly not going to get that; we're either going to get prohibition or a commercial system. If the controlled substance act weren't in the way, we might get state monopoly. That might be the best solution.
Should it be regulated just like alcohol?
We didn't get a good result with alcohol, so why do it again? The producers of any habituating commodity or activity are dependent on people who become dependent. Casual drinkers don't build breweries. Casual smokers don't build dispensaries. The interest of the industry is flatly contrary to the interest of the consumer. Which calls for either heavy regulation or state control.
Fifteen years ago, estimates suggested that the total illicit drug market in the U.S. at retail came to $60 billion. Half of that was cocaine, about a sixth was heroin, about a sixth was cannabis and a sixth everything else. In the meantime, the cocaine market has faded. And the cannabis market has come up. So the total is still about $60 billion at retail, but half of that is pot. That is a lot of money to be giving away to criminals.
As with alcohol, we gave cannabis prohibition a try and we couldn't hold it together. At some point, you stop fighting the tiger. Legalization is going to happen. The question is: Can we do it in a way that's not heavily devastating? Am I happy or unhappy that it's going to be a legal commodity? Ask me five years from now.